Solar Road Update -- The Stupid Continues

The one thing that I can count on is that if someone, somewhere in the world writes on solar roads, I am going to hear about it in my email.  I will confess that I have a soft spot for solar roads -- it is hard not to be entranced by the spectacle of such an incredibly stupid idea that is greeted by so much enthusiasm from nominally "pro-science" types.  My best estimate is that there may be close to a million acres of flat commercial roof space in this country, real estate where solar panels could be free of disturbance and angled optimally for the most power output.  So instead folks just seem to be giddy about putting solar panels on roads, there they cannot be angled and where they have to be hardened against driving and traffic.

So here is your latest update, from Idaho:

Despite massive internet hype, the prototype of solar “road” can’t be driven on, hasn’t generated any electricity and 75 percent of the panels were broken before they were even installed.

Of the panels installed to make a “solar footpath,” 18 of the 30 were dead on arrival due to a manufacturing failure. Rain caused another four panels to fail, and only five panels were functioning shortly thereafter. The prototype appears to be plagued by drainage issues, poor manufacturing controls and fundamental design flaws.

Every single promise made about the prototype seems to have fallen flat and the project appears to be a “total and epic failure,” according to an electrical engineer.

If it had worked, the panels would have powered a single water fountain and the lights in a restroom, after more than $500,000  in installation costs provided by a grant from the state government. The U.S. Department of Transportation initially handed $750,000 in grants to fund the research into the scheme, then invested another pair of grants worth $850,000 into it. The plan, dubbed, “Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways” raised another $2.2 million dollars in crowd-funding, even though several scientists publicly debunked the idea.

Scientists repeatedlycriticized the scheme as panels on roads wouldn’t be tilted to follow the sun, which makes them incredibly inefficient, would often be covered by cars during periods when the sun is out and wouldn’t be capable of serving as a road for long.

Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways has received fawning coverage in The Huffington Post, Nature World News, Newsweek, Wired, Ecowatch and National Geographic. The program was supported by political leaders like Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo.

I don't know if the manufacturing failures here are related to the hardening of the panels that must occur for them to be used for roads, or if they are more typical of the boondoggles one gets when crony companies enrich themselves by selling cr*p on government contracts.

But good news!  If you have extra money that you were just going to throw on the street because it was too much of a hassle to carry in your wallet, you can still give cash to Solar Freakin Roadways instead.




  1. Matthew Slyfield:

    "would often be covered by cars during periods when the sun is out and"

    Cars contain lots of fluids that can leak, oil, transmission fluid, antifreeze. Then there is rubber residue from tires.

  2. SamWah:

    There are sand, dust, and snow to cover the roads, too. Given snow, tire chains and studded tires would be hard on those roads, too.

  3. Rick Summerson:

    My personal favorite is using the roadway to extract energy from passing cars. You would be hard pressed to think of a more inefficient method of converting gasoline to electricity. While I lean towards being a Libertarian I do favor mandatory physics education before you are allowed to vote or drive, it would stop a lot of stuff like this. I have worked at a couple of big companies and it always fascinated me to watch a stupid idea turn into huge waste of money. At least where I worked no matter what the outcome we would always pronounce it as a huge success.

  4. DaveK:

    It's a conundrum... if solar panels were efficient enough that you could economically use them in a roadway, you wouldn't need to put them in the roadway in the first place.

  5. CC:

    In northern urban areas, a highway lasts about 5-7 yrs before needing repaving. Ice and snow plows do terrible damage. The same people who bitterly complain about road work seem to forget that there is road work and what that means.
    Garden solar lights I installed seem to have a half-life of about 8 months. I am down to 5 now from original 20.
    For solar panels on roads the only way to fix them is road work, which everyone hates.
    Even rooftop solar is no picnic. Fire departments hate them because they endanger the firemen. If you need a new roof you have to remove them and put them back. etc. turtles all the way down.

  6. Dr. Pansimian:

    I wonder what the coefficient of friction is for a solar road vs an asphalt one.

    "Remember to keep at least 30 seconds of space between you and the vehicle in front of you."

  7. Steven Aldridge:

    If you're going to use public money (which I'm against) for solar then earmark it strictly for research. Subsidizing solar only encourages waste and prolongs progress.

    As an aside I found a game to model Austrian Economics/Libertarian ideas (multi-player in a survival setting), it is working beautifully. There are socialist players in this game and they are getting upset as we create currencies, trade, and bask in voluntarily cooperation.

  8. kidmugsy:

    "so much enthusiasm from nominally "pro-science" types": here's your chance of immortality. You need to coin a witty, succinct name for the scientific illiterates who style themselves as pro-science, or for their pontifications. I have in mind something as good as "virtue signalling".

  9. herdgadfly:

    This reminds me of Obama's Energy Secretary, Dr. Steven Chu, who proposed painting all roofs white all asphalt roads some lighter color than black in order to lessen CO2 by as much as 11 years of the world's auto emissions for CO2.. When the dust had settled, it appears that Chu-Chu's buddies at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory were going to get a $3 billion grant to pursue painting roofs and roads in the 100 biggest cities of the world to head off 44 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. Dr. Roy Spencer calculated that that would affect global temperatures by no more than .01 %.

    Dr. Robert Ferguson at SPPI did some figuring o the back of an envelope and determined that the Chattanooga Chu-Chu would have to paint .5% of the earth's surface to achieve a .2% CO2 reduction. For a mere $17 Trillion we can do this.

  10. marque2:

    It might help keep things a bit cooler in cities however, which could have dramatic effects on energy use. Agreed, though that paining a few cities would have a local effect and wouldn't effect the world climate much

  11. marque2:

    Oil and transmission fluid burn nicely though. Both are mineral oil based.

  12. Matthew Slyfield:

    Are you planning on cleaning the solar road panels with a flame thrower?

  13. marque2:

    As long as we are doing wacky ideas, have small holes in the panels, and allow the fluid to drip through to be collected and burned by a fuel cell like device!

  14. jhertzli:

    A cheaper way to increase the Earth's albedo: Cover the oceans with white plastic.

  15. jhertzli:

    Science curious but science ignorant.

  16. jhertzli:

    They might have some guilt feelings about driving and this one way to feel socially responsible about it.

  17. J_W_W:

    I think this the other way around would be interesting. What if the power lines were in the road. Then electric cars driving on it would be able to use induction to pull power from the lines to charge/run.

    I think thats way more feasible than these other ideas and its still not really very feasible.

  18. Ike Evans:

    Whether we are talking about roof tops or road ways, solar panels for large scale energy production are still a bad idea.

    We need to remember that the single most important factor in energy production is reliability. Will it work when you need it? All first world economies are completely dependent on having access to energy 99%+ of the time.

    Not only do solar panels not work at night, they also don't work in clouded areas. This requires extensive back up power generation that is often not factored into the cost of wind and solar.

    And there's yet another problem with solar: the electrical grid death spiral. Because people are installing panels on their roofs, their electric bills drop because they aren't buying as much power off the grid anymore. But these people still rely on the grid as the panels on their roofs almost never supply enough energy to meet their needs. The thousands of miles of transmission cable, the substations, and the power stations all still need to be paid for, but who is going to do it if everyone has panels on their roofs? Right now electricity is cheap because everyone pays for it. But if the government incentivizes people to install panels on their roofs, the cost burden of the grid is spread out over a smaller base, driving up costs, which in turn incentivizes even more people to install panels to avoid these costs.

    ...but the panels won't eliminate our dependence on the grid that nobody wants to pay for anymore. Hence, the death spiral.

  19. Jim:

    One million, six hundred thousand dollars. I think that will have to do for my share.

  20. JTW:

    Remember how in the 1980s the guys now screaming "global warming" were screaming "global cooling, prepare for the coming ice age" and how we should dump millions of tons of soot on the polar ice caps to prevent them from growing, and to soak up sunlight that was going to waste to keep the planet warm...

  21. John O.:

    Somebody in Sherwin Williams really really wants to win that contract.

  22. markm:

    Solar power is stupid, but solar roads are incredibly stupid. They have all the problems of solar power _plus_ mounting panels at the wrong angle and subjecting them to flooding with every rainstorm, damage from heavy vehicles and from ground subsidence, and getting covered with snow, ice, and dirt.

    Anyone who does not recognize the angle problem is too ignorant about solar power to be qualified to say _anything_ on the subject. Anyone who does not recognize the other special problems of placing glass panels on the ground and driving over them is either spouting off without thinking _at all_ (and therefore not worth listening to and a gross danger in any sort of policy making position), or is deeply ignorant about just about everything in the real world (ditto - and worse).

  23. J K Brown:

    Underground power lines require insulation. At the voltages the long distance transmission lines run at, a lot of insulation. Insulation made from petroleum products. The lines high up in the sky use oxidation and separation rather than massive amounts of plastic.

  24. J_W_W:

    Correct. There are a lot of feasibility problems. But they're way easier to solve than the problems solar roads have.....

    Still it's just an interesting counter thought to solar roads, building roads how we've learned to over the past few decades is likely still the best course.

  25. J K Brown:

    More feasible would be to put roofs over the roadways with solar panels. Easier installation, cheaper installation, and the drivers are protected from blinding sun, rains, snows, etc.

  26. Brad Templeton:

    To be fair, while I agree 100% that the solar freakin roadways are mind-numbingly stupid and have blogged about the same myself, having flat panels is not "incredibly inefficient" compared to panels titled south to latitude. My understanding is that it's more like a 30% loss or so, said loss depending on your latitude, and your cloudcover. At that level, as the cost of the panels continues to drop well below the cost of installation and infrastructure, you can reach a point where it is better financially to put them at whatever angle is cheapest, including flat, even with reduced output. It is complex as you must also consider how dirty they will get. I also believe that while most people point panels south, the more economical orientation is southwest, because you get less power but you get more at the times of peak demand, 4-7pm in the afternoon.

  27. K. E.:

    A poor roll-out doesn't mean the idea is flawed. It means the people in charge are flawed.

  28. Brad Templeton:

    It can also mean both. And of course if the idea is really deeply flawed, the people promoting it are also flawed -- either fools, or scammers, I would fear.

  29. Tempe Jeff:

    For what it's worth, ALL the tiles are working now.

  30. rst1317:

    Would paradox better describe it?

  31. rst1317:

    I wouldn't assume that everyone advocating for this stuff doesn't realize it doesn't work for supplying power. This is a great way for the green luddittes to make driving prohibitively expensive. They just need to get in legislation and mandating these things and no one will be able to afford it.